What is cardiovascular disease?
What is cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to a range of problems that affect the heart and blood vessels. Most problems with circulation are caused by blood vessels becoming narrowed or blocked, reducing the blood supply to important parts of the body.
The process of blood vessels (arteries) narrowing is called atherosclerosis. This is usually driven by fatty deposits building up inside the walls of arteries which can then become blocked or cause a blood clot to form.
What conditions are associated with CVD?
Depending on which arteries are affected by atherosclerosis, this can cause problems for different organs like the heart, brain, limbs or kidneys. So cardiovascular diseases include a range of conditions like angina, heart attacks, strokes, peripheral vascular disease and some forms of kidney disease. These illnesses are described in more detail below.
Angina and heart attacks: When the heart doesn’t get as much oxygen as it needs, it can cause angina - this is a tightness in the chest triggered by increased strain on the heart from things like physical activity, stress or cold. Sometimes this pain spreads to the left shoulder or jaw, and it usually improves with rest or medication. . If the pain is prolonged, severe or associated with sweating or feeling very unwell, it might be a sign that one of the arteries to the heart is blocked and this could be a heart attack.Heart attacks can be treated in hospital with stents and future heart attacks can be prevented by taking regular medication. Other conditions that can affect the heart include problems like valve disease, palpitations, irregular heart beats and heart failure. You can read more about these conditions in a later article.
Strokes and mini-strokes: Clotting or bleeding inside the brain can cause strokes, where the blood supply to part of the brain is disrupted. The typical signs of a stroke can include drooping of one side of the face, weakness on one side of the body or slurred speech. If these symptoms disappear quickly (and last for less than 24 hours), it could be a mini-stroke (Transient Ischaemic Attack - TIA). A TIA is a warning sign that a stroke could be imminent. Strokes and TIAs should be treated as emergencies in hospital and specialist centres.
Peripheral Vascular disease: Narrowing of the arteries to the legs causes a condition called claudication. This causes a severe pain in the calves and lower legs on walking that gets better with resting. Symptoms can be improved by stopping smoking, lowering cholesterol and using stents to treat any blockages in the arteries to the legs.
Chronic Kidney disease: The kidneys can also be affected by a reduced blood supply. Medication to reduce blood pressure can help to protect the kidneys from further damage
How do we treat CVD?
You can improve many of the symptoms of cardiovascular disease by changing your lifestyle. The things that increase the chances of arteries getting blocked up include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet and high blood glucose levels (diabetes). We explain what you can do about each of these risks below.
High blood pressure: This puts a strain on blood vessels and makes them stiffer and more likely to get narrowed or blocked. Blood pressure medication, exercise, weight loss and a low salt diet can help you get a high blood pressure under control and take the strain off your heart, kidneys and blood vessels.
Raised cholesterol: With high levels of cholesterol (fats) in the blood, you see more fatty deposits in the walls of the blood vessels which then lead to narrowing of the arteries and blockages. You can reduce the amount of cholesterol in your blood and reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes by taking a statin tablet and reducing the amount of unhealthy fats in your diet.
Smoking: If you smoke, stopping smoking is the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. Chemicals in smoke make the lining of the blood vessels inflamed and sticky, increasing the risks of atherosclerosis.
Physical activity: Regular physical activity is really important for your physical and mental health. Being sedentary for long periods during the day increases the risks of cardiovascular disease, so try to spend less than 10 hours a day sitting down.
Diet: A healthy mediterranean style diet is really good for your heart and blood vessels. This is a diet high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, oily fish (salmon and mackerel), and unsaturated fats like rapeseed or olive oilI. It usually includes a low intake of meat and dairy foods. The fats that you eat are the fats that circulate round the blood - so it’s important to fuel up on high quality foods.
Diabetes: Cardiovascular disease is much more common in people living with diabetes. High blood glucose levels speed up the process of atherosclerosis and lead to problems with small arteries in the eyes, nerves and kidneys or bigger arteries in the heart, brain or limbs. Good control of blood glucose levels, blood pressure and cholesterol will help you protect your body from these changes.
Getting fitter and healthier will help you feel better and live longer. It’s always the right time to take a step (or 10,000) in the right direction!